FIVE weeks after the Irish electorate delivered its complex verdict on our politicians in the general election, we’re still not much nearer to having a government and it looks likely that it will be another week at least before we get some idea what shape, if any, it may take. The options include a minority government, most likely led by Fine Gael, or the potentially more stable ‘grand coalition’ with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil sharing power.
However, the prospects of the latter are still shrouded in uncertainty as the largest two parties continue to hold the line that they are not going to coalesce with one another, because both promised their respective supporters during the election campaign that they would not do so and, therefore, they don’t feel that they have the necessary mandate to do that or to support a minority government led by one or the other. The lines of communication may be opening up behind the scenes, but both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are still tiresomely shadow boxing in the public eye and people have had enough of it at this stage, because they feel both parties are putting their own interests before those of the country and that is certainly not what they were elected to do.
Their differences are purely tribal in nature, given that their policies have so much in common. Where there’s a will, there’s a way – but so far the will has been lacking.
The alternative is one of the two bigger parties forming a government with the support of a collection of independents and members of some of the smaller parties. It was encouraging to note a committed group of independent rural TDs – dubbed the ‘Rural Five’ and including West Cork’s own Michael Collins – upping the ante last week to try to get a government formed and it was interesting that they were of the opinion that Fine Gael were more open and committed to having talks and hearing ideas about what should be in the new programme for government.
Independent TDs who were elected in rural areas, as people voiced their displeasure with the establishment parties that the much-touted economic recovery had not filtered down to them, have a unique opportunity now to get the issues that need to be addressed prioritised in the programme for government. A full ministry for rural affairs needs to be set up with a realistic budget provided for what needs doing, including proper restoration of the rural roads infrastructure – which will be costly and take years – more high-speed broadband connectivity to help boost job creation, improved public services with easier access to them, especially in the areas of healthcare and housing, to mention just a few.
Having a Minister for Rural Affairs was one of the key recommendations of the ‘Energising Ireland’s Rural Economy’ report, published by the Commission for Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA) two years ago this month and launched with great fanfare by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, whose subsequent response was slow and grossly-inadequate, eventually only appointing a Minister for State, working across a number of different departments, which was far from satisfactory and was also grossly under-resourced. His government paid for that electorally with Minister for State Ann Phelan among the Labour Party TDs to lose her seat in the general election in February.
Job creation was the priority of the last government and setting up a ministry for jobs showed their intent and the strategy worked well. Similar intent needs to be shown by the next government and there is a need for a dedicated rural affairs department and, importantly also, one for housing so as to urgently address the problem of homelessness with actions rather than just the lip service it has been getting since the 31st Dáil was dissolved.
The ‘Rural Five,’ to their great credit, have upped the game as regards government formation and even out-manoeuvred media darling Shane Ross’s Independent Alliance with their pro-active approach and their efforts to, effectively, shame Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil into engaging with one another, which even the dogs in the street know needs to happen sooner rather than later. A Fine Gael-led government, supported by whatever cohort of independents and members of the smaller parties they can muster, would still be a minority one and would need the backing of Fianna Fáil to be viable.
There would have to be a set minimum time commitment for any such support, as there is little point in forming an administration that would be likely to fall after the first few hurdles. The alternative to forming a government is another general election, which neither the public nor the politicians want to even countenance at this point in time.